From 1936 to 1966, an annual guide was published designed to help African Americans traveling throughout the United States called “The Green Book.”
By now you’ve probably heard the name thanks to the Oscar-winning film with the same title. But what you may not know is that The Green Book’s importance extended beyond the south – including here in Western New England.
Connecting Point’s Ross Lippman takes us on a guide of The Green Book in Berkshire County, and its complicated place in civil rights history.
Read the full transcription:
Ann-Marie Harris, Berkshire Athenaeum: We had a request from the mayor’s office, like, “Did you know that there were some people who lived in Pittsfield that probably were a part of the Green Book?”
That display was put together in a couple of weeks. And we found that there was some really exciting things in Pittsfield about the Green Book that we didn’t know before.
Amilcar Shabazz, UMass Amherst: In the years of the Negro Motorist Green Book, you’re looking at a time in which Jim Crow is…the Jim Crow society that emerges after the Civil War is coming under serious assault.
This guide is trying to make life easy — easier — under Jim Crow oppression, but at the same time, Jim Crow oppression is — is becoming readily apparent can no longer work.
Ann-Marie Harris: The Green Book houses were all in a certain area of Pittsfield, which we call the West Side.
We looked at a lot of census records, because we tried to get those census records to show us that there were people living as a roomer or boarder or somebody who was visiting the area in a home, and we did find one at 53 King Street in Pittsfield, and that had the Grant family living there.
Amilcar Shabazz: To someone that doesn’t know the community, how can you get at least a thumbnail? What street? What area of town do I hit?
That’s what the guide is — is offering. It’s this kind of road map to…that you can survive by — and enjoy yourself — on the road. Because what’s the use of having a car, having this mobility, if in traveling, you’ve got to be afraid and you’ve got to be mistreated all along the way on the road?
So, something like the — the Green Book is…in a kind of a troubling place within that process. Because on the one hand, it is a survival mechanism. It is a way of how do you navigate what the status quo of the society is? But on the other hand, it is also in many ways accommodating a very unjust reality.
Ann-Marie Harris: This section comes under Massachusetts. It goes by town after that. So, you’ll see different towns in Massachusetts that is listed. In Berkshire County here, there were three towns. There was Great Barrington for the South, there was Pittsfield for central Berkshire County, and then there was North Adams for northern Berkshire County.
And it would give you the name of the person living there that you should be contacting and the address of that person, no phone number. You would just have to go drive to that address and knock on their door and say, “Here I am, do you have a room for me?” T
hey needed to feel safe, basically needed to feel safe. So, these — these restaurants and these gas stations and even taverns and even nightclubs that they wanted to enjoy had to be safe for them.
Amilcar Shabazz: But America’s very, very soul, it’s its moral compass, if you will, it’s its integrity as a — as a place where…of human rights and of all the great things going back to the Declaration of Independence of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, and all are created equal…you’re not living up to that when you practice this kind of Jim Crow world that is a statement of you aren’t like us.
Ann-Marie Harris: We had a gentleman come in yesterday that just wanted to touch the book, and I said, “It’s — it’s not an actual Green Book, it’s a facsimile of a Green Book.” And he said, “That’s OK. I just want to touch it.” And I said, “Well, you’re that interested in it…I’ll let you touch it.”